The patriotism we owe ourselves

Patriotism – wrote Mark Twain in a serious mood – is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.

Today, many flags will fly over Malta’s houses, in a requested show of support of Robert Abela’s government. Technically, the flags have been requested as a sign of national solidarity in the face of the coronavirus. But given the timing, and the heated political rhetoric, nobody’s fooled. So let’s spell out what Twain had in mind.

If you think patriotism means unconditional support for government policy, you’ve given up the right to keep the government accountable. You’ve surrendered your right to demand that the government acts like a public servant, not master. You’ve warped the idea of citizenship and weakened the citizenship that future generations will inherit.

Back to Malta. The flags are out in a ‘show of force’ against the NGO Repubblika. It claims the State has broken fundamental laws concerning the protection of the lives of immigrants drifting in Maltese waters. It has requested a criminal inquiry.

Abela responded by calling a press conference to say Repubblika’s actions were endangering the national interest and the lives of people in Malta – weakening the government’s ability to fight the pandemic. To fly the Maltese flag today specifically means you think anything less than unconditional support for the government is unpatriotic. The flag is a show of national pride and unity.

But national self esteem doesn’t depend only on being united as a nation. It also comes from doing things well as a nation. It comes from knowing the truth and insisting on it when faced with evasions. That’s the self esteem that Repubblika is insisting on when it demands to know whether it’s true that a Maltese soldier cut the cable of the motor of an immigrant boat – and then left the immigrants on it to drift.

The government has conspicuously avoided answering the question. During the press conference, Abela praised the army and the specific patrol boat in question. But he said nothing about the specific accusation against it. It wasn’t a lapse. He was reading from a prepared statement.

If love means never having to say you’re sorry, then patriotic love means never having to say you didn’t know what was done in your name. Our republic is built on the idea that you can ask and expect to be told. Anyone who challenges that right is attacking the country’s political foundations.

That’s the background against which we should judge Abela’s treatment of Repubblika and their lawyers. For daring to demand an inquiry into his immigration policy and actions as prime minister, he has unleashed Labour’s online army to incite people against Repubblika’s leaders.

He proclaims he wants his government to be defined by rule of law. Then he allows reckless incitement against people who go to the police because they want to know if the law has been followed.

It wrecks no private homes and burns no buildings, but organised intimidation in cyberspace is still mob rule. It is reckless for an MP like Glenn Bedingfield to say that Repubblika members are traitors, collaborating with an unnamed “enemy”. It takes one hothead to take that reasoning to the fatal conclusion that getting rid of the ‘traitors’ is justified.

Abela is Labour leader. It was he who framed Repubblika’s actions as malicious, intended only to land him in “jail for life” (which, however, can only happen if Repubblika’s worst suspicions are right). If he wants to dissociate himself from what’s being done in his name, and using the networks of the political party he leads, he should do so.

Otherwise, it’s all on him – even if his own words have been carefully dosed to remain within the boundaries of the just-about-acceptable. He can’t claim Jason Azzopardi, one of Repubblika’s lawyers, is acting in the name of the Opposition because he is a Nationalist MP, and then claim that whatever Bedingfield says is strictly personal.

You don’t have to share Repubblika’s worst suspicions and accusations to be shocked at Abela’s behaviour. I, for one, think that there is a strong legal case for the ‘unsafe port’ policy; in any case, I can see how a government can adopt such a policy in good faith even if I disagree with it.

I also think the press conference, in itself, was a reasonable response to Repubblika. If a prime minister is accused of complicity in murder, the country deserves to know his reaction and whether he enjoys the Cabinet’s backing.

There are several ways of holding such a press conference, of course, and Abela chose the road of over-statement and jingoism. Even as he said his conscience was clean, he was spinning furiously. But the press conference remained just within the limits of what’s acceptable.

What has been orchestrated since is not. Abela cannot say he wants to save the lives of Maltese and then oversee a reaction that could lead to violence.

If he insists his conscience is clean, then it must be one of those self-service consciences, an accomplice not a guide.

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